In memory of Caroline Newman

In memory of Caroline Newman, executive editor of Smithsonian Books, whose sudden, untimely, and unexpected death on December 14th, 2008, left a void that will never be filled.

It was an honor and a blessing to work with Caroline.  In these days when so many publishers play it safe, sticking with what’s been done before, she was gutsy.  For Smithsonian Ocean: Our Water Our World, she put together a team of strangers who hadn’t ever worked together; and didn’t even know each other.  We weren’t exactly unruly, but we were strong, some might say single-minded.  In the beginning, it seemed as if we each spoke a foreign language only she understood.  Yet, she knew we shared common ground and high ideals.  She knew we’d create a whole far greater than the sum of its parts, appreciating right from the start what we discovered near the end.

She was brainy, passionate about ideas, and insatiably curious – in short, the kind of editor every author dreams about.  She cared about every aspect of her books and she had a rare talent for getting to the heart of almost every matter.   In my case, this included not only the curve of the narrative, the details of the stories within, and their wider implications, but also the photography, maps, timeline, fonts, and the shine of the paper.

Our conversations frequently took unexpected turns.  A question about the fine points of grammar and cadence quickly led to the use of synecdoche and ellipsis in Greek epic poetry, and differences between Fitzgerald and Fagle’s translations of the Odyssey.    A discussion of my use of “Anthropocene” covered its pronunciation, origin, first appearance in various dictionaries, science journals and the general media.  I pride myself on being thorough; Caroline had me beat.

Her interests and passions seemed unlimited, ranging from Jarndyce and Jarndyce’s  unnerving applicability to the modern legal system, to the rituals of courtship in Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees, the increasingly drawn-out and difficult choices facing women living with breast cancer, the benefits of downward facing dog on both mind and sympathetic nervous system, the virtues of serving cheese or nuts with tawny port, the peace of gathering birds in the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge.

At a time when book sales are down, newspapers are losing circulation, editorial offices are understaffed, and editors are overworked, Caroline made time.  She was an editor who truly and deeply cared about books, who truly and deeply cared about ideas.

She was both horrified and fascinated by the seismic shifts occurring in the publishing industry.  She railed against the loss of thoughtful analysis and perspective often lost in a 24 hour news cycle dominated by an internet filled with instant experts.  Nonetheless, she marveled at how the internet’s wide reach could help a book find its audience.

This fear and curiosity precipitated a number of e-mails and telephone calls questioning how, while researching and writing Smithsonian Ocean: Our Water Our World, I could require access to electronic data bases containing hundreds of scientific journals, demand time to communicate with scientists on every continent, and fail to build a website and blog.  Caroline, you cajoled and prodded and insisted that I join the 21st century.  Finally, I have arrived, blogging no less, and you’re not here cheering me on, calling, as you did so often, with breaking news you want me to comment upon, articles and editorials you want me to write.

In our last conversation, only a few days before she died, Caroline was eagerly awaiting the arrival of President-elect Obama in Washington and the publication of her new book –  a collection of photographs, “The Scurlock Studio and Black Washington.” In her signature fashion – seeing larger meaning in detail, and simultaneously looking both back and forward – she considered the confluence of events leading to Obama’s election and how this historic moment would long resonate throughout our culture.

In that same conversation, though she was uncertain about what the future might hold for her books, she was equally certain that “quality will endure.  We can be proud,” she said, as she said good-bye, “that all the way through, we stood for quality.”

Caroline fought for and obtained quality, not just for me, but for all her authors, and not just for the book I had the joy of working on, but for all her books.  Caroline is gone, too suddenly, too soon.  I miss her.  When I see winter ducks and lingering heron, and hear the eerie cry of loons along the bay near my home, I think of Caroline kayaking in the marshes of Chesapeake Bay, and wonder what birds she might have seen and heard.  I find myself feeling that she is still with us.  Her spirit lives on, not only in her family, but in her authors and colleagues who also embody her ideals, and in her many books that so beautifully give vitality and meaning to our world.  This is no small legacy.

In thinking about the design of Smithsonian Ocean: Our Water Our World, Caroline had collected several passages from Rachel Carson.  She chose one to open the book, but there was another, from Carson’s The Sea Around Us, that she also loved.  Caroline, here it is for you now: “In its mysterious past [the sea] encompasses all the dim origins of life and receives in the end, after, it may be, many transmutations, the dead husks of that same life. For all at last return to the sea – to Oceanus, the ocean river, the ever-flowing stream of time, the beginning and the end.”